Skin cancer is a growth of abnormal cells in the skin. It is one of the most common types of cancer. It can happen anywhere but is usually found on areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun, like the head, face, neck, hands, and arms.
The 3 main types of skin cancer are:
Basal cell cancer. About 90% of all skin cancers in the US are basal cell. It is slow growing and seldom spreads to other parts of the body.
Squamous cell cancer. Squamous cell cancer also rarely spreads, but it is more likely to spread than basal cell cancer.
Melanoma. Melanoma usually develops from a mole. It is also caused by too much sun. Melanoma is not as common as the other 2 types of skin cancer, but it is more serious and more likely to spread to other parts of the body.
Basal and squamous cell cancers are common in people who are regularly in the sun for long periods of time. Both have a high rate of cure when treated right away. Melanoma is a more dangerous skin cancer.
What is the cause?
Exposure to UV rays from sunlight or tanning beds is the most common cause of skin cancer. You may be at higher risk if:
You have fair skin that freckles easily.
You spend a lot of time outside, for example, while farming, working construction, swimming, hiking, or skiing, or driving several hours a day with your arm out the window.
You live where there is more UV radiation from the sun, like at a high altitude or in a tropical area.
Most basal and squamous cell skin cancers appear after age 50, but the sun’s damaging effects start at an early age. Melanoma may appear at any time after puberty. Protection of the skin should start in childhood to prevent skin cancer later in life.
What are the symptoms?
Many skin cancers occur on the face, but they can happen anywhere. Symptoms may include:
A new skin growth or a sore that does not heal
A small, smooth, shiny, pale, or waxy lump
A firm red lump that sometimes bleeds or develops a crust
A flat, red spot that is rough, dry, or scaly
A change in the color, shape, or thickness of a mole
An early, precancerous skin condition is actinic keratosis. It is a rough, scaly area of skin that forms on sun-exposed areas and does not go away. Your healthcare provider can easily treat this condition.
How is it diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will:
Look at your skin
Ask about your symptoms and medical history and if the affected area of skin has changed in any way
Remove all or part of the skin growth for lab tests (biopsy)
How is it treated?
Cancers are treated by removing or destroying the cancer. The choice of treatment depends on the type of cancer and its size and position on the skin. Possible treatments include:
Removing the cancer with surgery, a laser, or freezing the growth with liquid nitrogen
Anticancer drugs that are taken by mouth, injected into a vein or muscle, or put on the skin to kill cancer cells
Radiation or light therapy to kill cancer cells
Drugs that help your immune system fight the cancer
How can I take care of myself?
If you have had skin cancer, you are at a higher risk for developing skin cancer again. You should be sure to have regular exams so that your healthcare provider can check your skin.
Ask your healthcare provider:
How and when you will hear your test results
How long it will take to recover
What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
How to take care of yourself at home
What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.
How can I help prevent skin cancer?
Avoid exposing your skin to too much sun. When you are outdoors:
Wear clothing and hats that cover you, and stay out of the midday sun as much as possible.
Use sunscreen. The higher the sun protection factor (SPF) of the sunscreen, the more your skin is protected. Use a product with an SPF of at least 15. For water sports, use a sunscreen lotion that does not wash off in the water. If you are allergic to PABA, use PABA-free sunscreen lotion. And remember that UV rays from the sun can cause sunburn or damage even on cloudy days.
Check your skin regularly and report any changes to your healthcare provider right away. If you are at high risk, see your provider for exams as recommended.
Donâ€™t use sunlamps or tanning beds.
To get more information about skin cancer, talk to your provider or contact:
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth. Last modified: 2013-06-14 Last reviewed: 2014-06-09
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Skin Cancer: References
Niederhuber JE, et al., eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier; 2014.
Reszko A, Aasi SZ, Wilson LD, Leffell DJ. Cancer of the skin. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds.DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenbergâ€™s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2011:1610-1633